spring_banner.jpg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

New York Times food writer Eric Kim explores his 'Korean American' heritage in debut cookbook

The cover of "Korean American" by Eric Kim. (Courtesy)
The cover of "Korean American" by Eric Kim. (Courtesy)

Here & Now‘s Jane Clayson speaks with New York Times food writer Eric Kim about his new cookbook “Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home.”

Kim grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of Korean immigrants.

Recipes from ‘Korean American’

By Eric Kim

Roasted-Seaweed Avocado Toast

SERVES 1

½ medium avocado, roughly cubed

½ (5-gram) packet gim, crushed with your hands or snipped into thin strips with scissors

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

Splash of rice vinegar

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 slice thick, chewy bread, such as country-style sourdough, toasted

In a small bowl, gently stir together the avocado, most of the gim, the sesame oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Mound atop the toasted bread and top with the reserved gim.

Eric’s Kimchi Fried Rice with Egg Yolk

It helps with fried rice dishes to have a mise en place: meaning to have prepped and measured out all the ingredients before you start cooking. Because once you start, it all comes together very quickly. The one thing you don’t want to do is burn the gochugaru or the kimchi, which is how you lose the bright red flavor that’s characteristic of kimchi fried rice. I actually like the taste of the raw kimchi juice and all its red-peppery glory here; it’s what makes this dish taste, as my dad said, “like fire.”

SERVES 1

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 large scallion, thinly sliced on the diagonal

½ teaspoon gochugaru (less if you don’t like spicy)

½ medium yellow onion, diced

1 cup finely chopped, very ripe (like, the dankest you’ve got) napa cabbage kimchi, store-bought or homemade (page 68)

1 cup cooked white rice (page 128), fresh, day-old, or cold

2 tablespoons kimchi juice

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

½ teaspoon fish sauce

1 (5-gram) packet gim, crushed with your hands

1 large raw egg yolk (one you feel confident about)

1. In a large nonstick or castiron skillet, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the scallion and gochugaru and sauté for 30 seconds to bloom the chile flakes.

2. Still over medium-low, add the onion and sauté until just beginning to sweat, about 1 minute. Stir in the kimchi and sauté for another minute. Place the rice in a mound in the center of the pan, over the other ingredients, and drizzle it with the kimchi juice, sesame oil, and fish sauce. Then stir the rice and kimchi together and cook over high heat for 3 minutes. Using the back of your spoon, gently press the rice into the pan (like you’re making a big kimchi fried rice pancake); reduce the heat to medium and let the rice crisp for 2 minutes.

3. Serve in a bowl topped with the gim (I like to shape it into a nest) and egg yolk, which should be placed ever so gently within the gim nest. To eat, stir the egg yolk into the hot rice.

Jean’s Perfect Jar of Kimchi 

I would argue that this is the most important recipe in the book. Again, there are other kimchis beyond this spicy napa cabbage variety, but if you’re to make just one recipe within these pages, I would start with this one. Set aside about four hours for the project, most of which is inactive time, and it’ll take a couple weeks for the kimchi to ferment, too. There’s a lot of waiting. But if you make this kimchi now, you’ll be able to cook a thousand other things with it later, like kimchi jjigae (page 98), the homiest of Korean stews, and kimchi fried rice (page 136), the pinnacle of Korean comfort food. Consider this recipe the key that unlocks all the other levels of Korean home cooking (or at least the ones in this book). Jean worked especially hard to get this recipe to fit a one-gallon jar exactly with her tong baechu kimchi, or whole napa cabbage kimchi (where the leaves are kept together by the core, rather than chopped up into pieces first; in my opinion, this results in a much better-tasting ferment). She did this mostly out of obsessiveness, but also because: Is there anything more satisfying than a recipe that makes one perfect jar of a really good thing?

There were some weeks when she was testing this recipe once a day. That’s five pounds of kimchi, every single day. My breath smelled like garlic for months (it was wonderful). She’d tweak things here and there, take ingredients out, add them back in. Ultimately, some hard decisions were made. Ordinarily, for instance, you would cook up a mixture of water and glutinous rice flour to make a slurry, which adds bulk to the kimchi sauce and allows you to cover all the cabbage leaves evenly. At one point she was using a grated potato in place of the glutinous rice flour, which actually worked really well and tasted great. But everything changed when she developed a version without any starches at all, just to see what would happen. Not only did skipping the slurry make the recipe significantly easier; it made the kimchi taste better and more concentrated in flavor, as well.

It was fun watching Jean perfect her own signature kimchi, a recipe she can now call The One. Not least because a Korean mother’s kimchi is her bread and butter, her secret sauce. In it lies all of her powers, decades of experience and Korean mom secrets. There’s a saying in Korean culture that if your kimchi is good, then all your cooking is good. It’s what makes your kimchi jjigae and kimchi fried rice taste the way they do.

Jean made her best jar of kimchi yet on March 5, 2021. There was a Post-it note on it. It’s the kimchi you see in a lot of the photos throughout this book. We used it because it was the brightest, reddest, and most flavorful one. The resulting recipe—which is printed right here—is in many ways an extension of my mother, a family heirloom she’s choosing to pass down to us. So please take care of it, use it wisely, and share it with the people you love most. And call your mom.

MAKES 1 GALLON (SEE NOTE, PAGE 70)

1 cup kosher salt

2 medium heads napa cabbage (about 2 pounds each), any dirty outer leaves removed, quartered lengthwise (see Korean Mom Tip, page 70)

For the perfect sauce

½ medium yellow onion, peeled

½ medium red apple, peeled

½ medium Korean pear (aka Asian pear), peeled

10 large garlic cloves, peeled

1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled

¾ cup gochugaru

½ cup fish sauce

½ cup saeujeot (salted fermented shrimp; see page 25)

3 tablespoons maesil cheong (green plum syrup; see page 22)

1 pound Korean radish, peeled and cut into matchsticks

5 large scallions, cut into ½-inch pieces

1. Fill a large, wide tub with 6 cups cold tap water. Add the salt and stir to dissolve. Add the cabbage quarters to the water, making sure the inner leaves are all soaked by spreading them open slightly. Let the cabbage sit in the water cut-side up until wilted and seasoned throughout, about 3 hours, flipping once halfway through. The bowl will fill with more water as the salt draws liquid out of the cabbages.

2. Meanwhile, make the perfect sauce: In a food processor, combine the onion, apple, Korean pear, garlic, and ginger and process until smooth. Transfer to a large bowl—like, the largest you’ve got—and add the gochugaru, fish sauce, salted fermented shrimp, plum syrup, radish, and scallions. Stir to combine.

3. Drain and rinse the salted cabbage quarters in the sink, running them under the cold tap and squeezing them of their excess liquid. Place one cabbage quarter in the large bowl with the sauce and smear it all over the cabbage and in between all the leaves. When it’s fully slathered inside and out, gather its wide leafy ends together and lay them over its root end, like you’re swaddling a baby, essentially folding the whole thing in half. Place that gorgeous new kimchi baby into a 1-gallon jar. Repeat with the rest of the cabbage quarters, snugly placing one finished and swaddled bundle after another into the jar. You should be able to fill the entire jar with this amount of kimchi. Top the jar with any remaining kimchi sauce and loosely close with a lid.

4. You can start eating this kimchi as soon as you make it, though it won’t gain its characteristic sourness until you let it sit. To do so: Store it at room temperature until it begins to ferment and sour, 2 to 3 days depending on the season and temperature of your kitchen. Refrigerate it after that for 2 to 3 weeks until fermented and up to 6 to 8 months.

NOTE: To house your kimchi while it ferments, the best option is a onegallon glass jar with a loose-fitting plastic lid. You can find this online and at any Asian grocery store. A stainless-steel jar with a metal lid comes in close second. The one thing you should not use is a mason jar with an airtight lid. When it comes to kimchi, the air needs somewhere to escape—to “fart,” as I like to say.

In fact, whatever jar you’re using, you’ll want to check on your kimchi in its early stages, every 2 to 3 days, by opening the lid and taking a sterile utensil to press down on the top of the kimchi to release some gas. This isn’t entirely necessary, but it’s a useful way to get to know the fermentation process and how things work in your kitchen. It’s also added insurance. Your jar could explode (though that’s never happened in my lifetime, nor in my mother’s, so I don’t know why it keeps happening to people).

Korean Mom Tip

When quartering napa cabbages, there’s a way to make your leaves look natural and ruffled (versus straight and narrow from a sharp knife cut). Jean suggests carving a 2-inch-deep cross into the root end of the cabbage to start it off and then, from there, spreading the rest of the head apart with your hands so the leaves can separate organically like assassassa—

“Like WHAT?” I asked, as she showed me the motion.

“Assassassassassa,” she repeated. (This is the sound that cabbage leaves make when they’re being torn into quarters, apparently.)

It’s 7 in the morning and we’re both cackling at the kitchen table with our coffees. I love how onomatopoeic the Korean language is. There’s a word for every sound.

Variation: Baek Kimchi with Beet

This hot-pink dream of a kimchi tastes incredibly refreshing and looks so beautiful, like a Vermeer painting. My mother thought it up one morning while juicing a beet.

To make it, follow the recipe for Jean’s Perfect Jar of Kimchi (page 68), with these changes: Nix the gochugaru in the sauce and replace with 2 Asian probiotic yogurt drinks (such as Maeil Biofeel or Yakult) and ½ large beet (about 6 ounces), peeled and cut into very thin matchsticks. Watch with glee as the kimchi turns pinker and pinker the longer it ferments.

Reprinted from Korean American. Copyright © 2022 Eric Kim. Photographs copyright © 2022 Jenny Huang. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Random House.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.